Thomas W. (Tom) Sneddon, Jr.
As Thomas W. (Tom) Sneddon, Jr., an NDAA vice president, begins his sixth and, he says, his last four-year term this month as DA of Santa Barbara County, California, he can look back on a successful and colorful career with many distinctions.
One of those distinctions he could do without: He’s the only DA in the nation to have an angry song written about him by pop megastar Michael Jackson.
Among the less sensational but more substantive and interesting distinctions of Sneddon’s career:
- He has been re-elected five consecutive times since his initial and contested election.
- He continues to be a formidable courtroom presence and still prosecutes high-profile cases. His take-no-prisoners courtroom demeanor won him the nickname, “Mad Dog” early in his career, but the years apparently have mellowed him. His present nickname is “Snuffy.”
- Described as “a ferocious athlete” since his undergraduate days at Notre Dame, where he was on the boxing team, he coached youngsters’ teams for 18 years and at age 61 he can still pitch a wicked softball.
- When the government of Israel refused to extradite two Israeli hit men hired to murder a Santa Barbara couple, Sneddon and an investigator went to Israel and successfully assisted Israeli prosecutors in convicting the two men there. They were then successful in having Canada extradite the person who had hired the hit men and were able to obtain a conviction.
- He has been a frequent lecturer at the National Advocacy Center and at the National College of District Attorneys, where he has received both the Lecturer of Merit Award and the Distinguished Faculty Award.
- A newspaper article described him as “arguably the single most powerful person in all of Santa Barbara County.” On the basis of his office, popularity and authoritative presence, many in his jurisdiction would drop the “arguably.”
Tom Sneddon, a native of the Los Angeles area, supervises a staff of 247, including 50 attorneys, in one of the most attractive and best known communities in the nation. Glamorized in films and TV sitcoms, the real Santa Barbara, Sneddon points out, actually is a diverse county of approximately 440,000 that includes not only a sizeable high-tech industry segment and a university, but also fertile farmlands that produce one of the largest grape crops andhe contends, in a touch of civic pride“the best wine” in California, as well as strawberries, lettuce and broccoli.
Even so, crime is no stranger to Santa Barbara city and county. Sneddon says, “I think we’re probably like everyone else. We have drug and drug-related crimes too.”
He believes that the biggest problem that he, as well as other prosecutors, face is “trying to provide quality public service and public protection without sufficient resources.”
He still tries cases himself, Sneddon explains, “ because I love trials, and it’s good to get out of the office and do something I enjoy so much. I also think,” he continues, “that in an office my size it’s important for the lawyers to be able to see that the boss can still try a case, so that when people come to you and ask whether this or that should be done, they know that you’re not just a bench jockey and that you know what you’re talking about.”
Asked about a newspaper article that indicated he was regarded by some of his legal contemporaries as not only tough but hot-tempered, Sneddon responds, “I’ve been in this business now for 33 years, so clearly there were times when I was probably developing my skills and personality in the courtroom and maybe at times wasn’t as controlled as I am now. Sure, once in a while defense attorneys do things that tick you off. But I know, having played competitive sports, that if you allow that to influence you for very long, you lose your concentration and lose your game. I believe I’ve always been in control over everything I’ve done in a courtroom and if you talked to the judges, I think they’d say I’m a dammed good lawyer.”
They would also probably say that Tom Sneddon stands by his principles. Back in 1980, he recalled in a newspaper interview, that when he prosecuted the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara for embezzlement and tax fraud, as well as a legendary local investor for fraud, he was besieged by callers who said “what good people they were and that we were going to lose.”
Then he added: “When (Assistant DA) Pat McKinley and I took this job, we always said we were going to do the right thing for the right reasons, and if that’s not good enough, then they can get someone else to do it.”
These principles of right and wrong were instilled in Tom Sneddon at an early age in the Lynwood/Compton area of Los Angeles, where his parents and grandparents ran a bakery and where Tom Sneddon, Sr. made clear that Tom, Jr. would work until he decided whether to go to college. “If you ever worked in a bakery,” he notes, “you’d know that this didn’t take much convincing” for him to decide on college.
Tom Sneddon attended Notre Dame, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. He went on to UCLA where he attended law school and also met his future wife, Pam, on a blind date. They have nine children, including one set of twins.
After a brief period as a criminal defense attorney with a Beverly Hills law firm and army service during the Vietnam War, he joined the Los Angeles DA’s office as a deputy DA, working out of the Whittier office. In 1969 he moved to Santa Barbara County to become deputy DA, later moving up to supervisor of criminal operations. In 1982 he was elected DA and has been re-elected ever since.
Sneddon has served far longer than any other DA in the county’s history and during that period has created what one observer has called “a high-powered office of talented career prosecutors where the turnover is conspicuously low and the morale strikingly high.”
“Perhaps Sneddon’s last legacy,” wrote Nick Welsh in the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper, “has been the unparalleled stretch of stability he’s brought to a political office that, in many counties throughout the state, has been the focus of intense back-stabbing, and grandstanding.”
About that angry song that pop megastar Michael Jackson wrote about him after Sneddon’s office looked into child molestation accusations against Jackson in 1993-94: In the process, Sneddon ordered Jackson to be stripped and photographed to corroborate the boy’s description of intimate parts of his anatomy. No charges were pressed. Of the song, Sneddon says, “I have notshall we saydone him the honor of listening to it, but I’ve been told that it ends with the sound of a gunshot.”
Like other long-time DAs, Sneddon could have joined a big law firm and earned much more money, but he has never given that prospect any serous thought, because, he explains: “I love what I’m doing. To me, it’s the greatest job in the world. I can’t see money replacing the job satisfaction. I come from a family that never had a lot of money, so I’m not used to having a lot of it.”
Asked if he would join a law firm when he retires, he has a one-word answer: “No.” He says he might do some consulting, but most likely “I’ll do some pro bono work in the juvenile justice system with kids. And play a lot of golf and softball.”
Asked what has given him the greatest satisfaction in his career, he has a two-word answer: “Helping people.”